The following essay will examine the two poems, ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Alan Poe and ‘Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?’ by William Shakespeare ultimately evaluating which is more effective and appropriate for a modern audience. The two poems will be evaluated using the criteria of structure, language and discourse.
While ‘The Raven’ is more effective in its use of discourse, ‘Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?’ is noticeably superior in its use of figurative language and literary structure, privileging and foregrounding ideas and values that are more appropriate for modern readers.
First and foremost, ‘Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?’ is noticeably more effective in its use of literary structure in comparison to ‘The Raven’. Consequently, the two poems bare very few conventional similarities in relation to structure. Shakespeare’s ‘Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?’ is in the form of a Sonnet, a rhyming poem in 14 lines using iambic pentameter. Poe’s ‘The Raven’ differs immensely, a poem in free verse, characterised by 18 stanzas, 6 lines per stanza for a total of 108 lines. With characteristic skill Shakespeare uses the conventional Sonnet to exalt his beloved and consequently poetry, whereas Poe chooses to use free verse and most notably a powerful refrain, repeating the word ‘Nevermore’ (seen in Li6 Sta8-18) to chill the modern reader. Poe unconventionally writes his tale backwards. Through this, the effect is determined first and the whole plot is set; then the web grows in reverse from the original effect.
- Common theme of love and beauty, Poe conveying, guilt sadness and death of beauty;
- Shakespeare conveying immortality and exalt of love and beauty.
Secondly, ‘The Raven’ is less effective in its use of figurative language in comparison to ‘Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?’ ‘Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?’ can be best deconstructed in the form of three quatrains and a couplet. The first quatrain introduces the primary conceit of the poem, the comparison of the poet’s beloved to a summer’s day. The first line introduces this comparison, while the second builds upon it when writing, “Thou art more lovely and more temperate” (Li2). When writing, “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,” he uses rough winds as a metaphor for capricious chance and change, implying that his beloved does not suffer from these winds as summer does. The second quatrain again strengthens the comparison of the beloved to a summer’s day. The poet uses personification to anthropomorphise the sky of “heaven,” (Li5) by using the metaphor of an “eye” (Li5) for the sun so as to draw a vivid comparison between a person and a season. By assigning heaven an “eye” the speaker uses imagery to invoke the scene of his beloved’s eyes. In the next line when the poet mentions that “often is his gold complexion dimm’d” he begins to present summer as possessing only mutable beauty. The third quatrain speaks of the eternal nature of the memory of his beloved. When the poet assures that her “eternal summer shall not fade” (Li9) he uses summer as a metaphor for her beauty.
Using “fade” facilitates the direct comparison of the abstract notion of a summer’s day to the concrete person of his beloved because fading is an attribute of light. Similarly, when the poet writes of his beloved entering the “shade” (Li10) of death, he expands on the use of the metaphor and reinforces the poem’s primary conceit. When the poet states that his beloved won’t suffer the same fate as a summer’s day because he has committed her to “eternal lines” (Li12) he grants his beloved immortality through poetry that God did not give to the summer’s day. The couplet concludes the poem by tying together the common themes of love and poetry, boasting that unlike a summer’s day, his poetry and the memory of his beloved will last “so long as men can breathe or eyes can see” (Li13)
Like Shakespeare, Poe too uses a wide variety of symbolism and metaphors throughout ‘The Raven’ to take the poem to a higher, subtle level. The first significant metaphor is the Raven itself, the bird of ill omen to illustrate the poet’s self torture. This representation is appropriate for the melancholy and morbid mood of the poem. Another subtle metaphor is the “bust of Pallas” (Li5 Sta7). When the Raven perched upon the Goddess of Wisdom this led the narrator to believe the Raven spoke from indeed wisdom and was not uttering its “only stock and store” (Li Sta11) and to signify the scholarship of the narrator. The chamber in which the narrator sits, is symbolic for the loneliness of the man, and the sorrow he feels for the loss of his beloved Lenore. The tempest outside, is used to enforce this idea of isolation, to show a sharp contrast between the calm chamber and the tempestuous night. Poe so often uses (in conjunction with the refrain) the literary device known as alliteration, “weak and weary” (Li1 Sta1) “nodded, nearly napping,” (Li3 Sta1).
Finally, ‘The Raven’ is noticeably superior in discourse to that of ‘Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?’ both foregrounding and marginalising specific aspects of the ongoing theme of love and beauty. The predominant discourse in ‘The Raven’ is the ancient discourse. The foregrounding of ancient and poetic language seems quite appropriate, since the poem is about a man spending the majority of his time pondering over “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,” (Li2 Sta1). For instance, “Seraphim” “perfumed by an unseen censer / Swung by seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled…” (Li1-2 Sta14) is used by the poet to illustrate the swift, invisible way a scent spreads in a room, Seraphim being one of the six-winged angels standing in the presence of God. Another example is “Nepenthe,” (Li5 Sta14), a potion mentioned in the Iliad used by Ancients to induce forgetfulness of pain or sorrow. How or when he lost his beloved Lenore is silenced. In comparison to this, ‘Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?’ predominantly uses the romantic discourse. Shakespeare foregrounds lines such as “Thou art more lovely and more temperate” to exalt his beloved. Similarly to Poe, Shakespeare uses archaic words such as “Thee” “Thou” and “Hath”. Some of the aspects marginalised in the poem include the gender of the beloved (there are theories that Sonnets 1-27 were to a young man ‘in his sights’) and whether his beloved had indeed died.
In summary both Poe and Shakespeare chose Love and Beauty as the sole legitimate provinces of their poems. After this decision, Poe chose sadness and death to be the highest manifestation of beauty, while Shakespeare chose immortality through verse.
While ‘The Raven’ is more effective in its use of discourse, ‘Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?’ is indeed noticeably superior in its use of figurative language and literary structure, privileging and foregrounding ideas and values that are more appropriate for modern readers.